Friday, 28 August 2009

Chance Encounters...

Jacques-Henri Boiffard

I enjoyed ‘Subversive Spaces, Surrealism and Contemporary Art’ at Compton Verney the other day. The exhibition examines the legacy of the Surrealist project in two distinct spaces. Psychic Interiors uses themes of psychic disturbance- anxiety and hysteria- to explore the spaces of the home. Wandering the City follows the Surrealists’ preoccupation with walking around the streets as a means to discover hidden social spaces as well as unconscious fears and desires. It is in these spaces, both private and public, that the ghosts of Surrealism are to be found, stalking both our homes and our streets.

The whole exhibition was really thought provoking, but I found myself being drawn to the latter theme of Wandering the City, as I recognised in this idea parallels with my own approach to subject matter that I previously hadn’t considered, and was surprised to see them in an exhibition on Surrealism, as it is an art movement I’ve never really had a lot of personal interest in. For the Surrealists, wandering the city was a means of letting themselves be surprised by chance encounters, and discovering their own fears and desires. Jacques-Henri Boiffard’s dead-pan, black and white illustrations for Andre Breton’s novel Nadja suggest that the most banal location can become the setting for the unexpected.

It is this ‘chance encounters’ theme that I particularly related to, as I approached my recent portrait work in a similar fashion. In both ‘Seek My Face’ and ‘Audience’ for JCC, nine times out of ten, I hadn’t met the sitter before turning up to draw them, so I had no expectations of who I was going to meet. I had normally just arranged the sitting by phone or e-mail as I tracked down possible sitters from all sorts of contacts, or from pinning up a notice for volunteers.
I found this way of working on portraits really exciting, as it helps eliminate the possibility of selecting sitters for the character in their faces or because of their lives of jobs or achievements. Inevitably, I had to then ‘select’ individuals from all my drawings to create the paintings, but the starting points always tended to be from creating a situation where there was room for surprise and ‘chance’, in what would be a very intimate one on one situation between artist and sitter. I try and force myself into a position where I have to deal with the form and features of the sitter in that precise moment and place, as I also don't use photographs as an aide memoire or record.

'Bernard'. oil on canvas, 60 x 210cms, 2007

I approach my ‘Nature’ paintings in a similar vein, especially the work done on location outdoors, but feel that this is still relatively under-developed compared to my portrait work. I try to be completely open minded to seeking subjects, and often set-up to paint or draw when out walking, looking for that surprise in the banal. It often only reveals itself as you observe and translate what you see in a drawing or painted study. Also, the continued use of my sketchbook to draw just for drawings sake, has lead to my recent ‘Eve Of The Day’ painting and others which are just developed from drawings made of flowers in the neighbour’s garden, when I inadvertently find myself in front of something with my sketchbook. It is often only later when I’m in the studio and I have chance to reflect on my ‘chance encounters’ with the landscape that things start to suggest themselves as starting points for a painting. It’s about being open to these things and trying to avoid cliche.

'Motorway', oil on canvas, 90 x 60cms, 2004
Up until this week, I’d never made the connection with Surrealism. This ‘chance encounter’ with the exhibition has proved really exciting and something to explore further. Don’t you just love it when that happens…?

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